Referral to a specialist

It is normal to worry if your child has symptoms of any illness. But cancer in children is rare. Having possible symptoms doesn’t mean your child has leukaemia. But it is important to take them to the GP, so they can check them out.

Seeing your GP

It can be hard for GPs to decide who may have cancer and who might have a more minor condition. For some symptoms, your doctor may ask you to wait to see if your child’s symptoms get better or respond to treatment, such as antibiotics.

There are guidelines for GPs to help them decide who needs a referral.

For suspected leukaemia in children, the guidelines state your child should have a very urgent blood test to look at their blood count within 48 hours.

They should be referred to a specialist immediately by the GP if they have:

  • small pink or purple spots on their skin that can’t be explained
  • a swelling in their abdomen (tummy) area that could be an enlarged spleen or liver
  • blood test results that could show a possible leukaemia

These guidelines are very clear that that the GP should take the parent or carers concern about their child into account when deciding about a specialist referral.

The first professional your child might see is a specialist children’s doctor. These doctors are called paediatricians. They might then go on to see a specialist children and young person’s blood doctor. These doctors are called consultant paediatric haematologists.

Other ways of being diagnosed

Some children are diagnosed with leukaemia during tests for another condition. Other children are diagnosed after needing to go to A&E because their symptoms came on suddenly.

Seeing your child unwell and then learning about their cancer diagnosis in a short space of time can be very frightening.

Children’s cancer specialist team

Once your child is diagnosed a specialist children’s cancer team plan their care. The team is used to planning care for, and treating, children with cancer. They explain everything to you and your family. There is lots of practical, emotional and psychological support available for children with cancer and their families.

Quotes from parents - keep asking the professionals
Last reviewed: 
02 Nov 2021
Next review due: 
02 Nov 2024
  • Suspected cancer: recognition and referral
    National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE), last updated September 2020

  • Scottish referral guidelines for suspected cancer. 
    Healthcare Improvement Scotland (HIS), January 2019

  • Pan-London Suspected Cancer Referral Guide: Children
    Pan London Cancer Guidelines, July 2017

  • Suspected cancer (part 1—children and young adults): visual overview of updated NICE guidance
    W Hamilton and others
    BMJ, 2015. Volume 350, Number h3036

  • Parents' accounts of obtaining a diagnosis of childhood cancer
    M Dixon-Woods and others
    The Lancet, 2001. Vol 357, Issue 9257, Pages 670 to 674

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